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Salonica and after, the sideshow that ended the war online

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229



SALONICA AND AFTER

lery "up his sleeve." He had no lack of troops to hold
his hill fortresses, and no lack of reserves in easy call.
He held ninety-nine per cent, of advantage in the general
situation. It was to be an uphill fight for us in every
sense of the word. It was understood that there was
to be Allied support elsewhere on the line, but this was
not forthcoming, and we had to attack the pivot of the
whole enemy line with nothing happening to distract
him elsewhere.

The chief objectives of the offensive were the Pip
Ridge and Petit Couronne. The task of attacking the
first, on the left of the operations, fell to the 22nd Divi-
sion, their line of attack running from the Ridge down
to Hill 380. To the 26th Division fell the task of attack-
ing the very strong Bulgar line on a front of about 3,000
yards from a point known as 0.6 down to the lake, in-
cluding the main bastion of this line, Petit Couronne.
There were two attacks ; the first on the night of April
24-25th, and the second on the night of May 8-9th.

The fighting was on as fierce a scale as any yet seen
in the Balkans, and the artillery concentration was the
heaviest yet known. In the first attack the 65th and
66th Brigades of the 22nd Division gained a good deal
of ground, pushing their way up from Horseshoe for
some four or five hundred yards on the Ridge and cap-
turing the Mamelon and Hill 380. At the same time
the 78th and 79th Brigades of the 26th Division at-
tacked the Bulgar line from Petit Couronne down to
the lake. Our troops entered the Bulgar line at many
points but had heavy losses, particularly in the Jum-
eaux Ravine, both going and returning, and were forced
back to their trenches. The bright side to this costly
operation was that between April 26th and 28th the
Bulgars launched four heavy counter-attacks against
tjie new line held by the 22nd Division, and were each

280



DOIRAN

time thrown back with great losses, the 13th Manches-
ters and 8th K.S.L.I.'s doing especially heavy
execution.

In the second attack the 60th, 22nd, and 26th Divi-
sions took part, but the brunt of the fighting fell on
the latter. Their objective was again from Petit Cour-
onne down to the lake. Our men showed amazing
courage and fortitude in the most forbidding circum-
stances. They knew that it was practically a forlorn
hope. Again the Jumeaux Ravine claimed many
victims, but in spite of very heavy losses the 7th Oxford
and Bucks Light Infantry and two companies of the
7th Berkshires fought their way right up the precipitous
side of Petit Couronne, and after further heavy losses
from a fierce trench mortar barrage finally took and
held the trenches on the summit, practically all the
officers now being killed or wounded. But their posi-
tion became hopeless, and they had to withdraw next
day. Both battalions were specially commended for
their " splendid gallantry and determination."

Further down the line towards the lake English and
Scotch battalions (10th Black Watch, 9th Gloucesters,
11th Scottish Rifles, 12th Argylls, 11th Worcesters, and
8th R.S.F.) had some very fierce and costly fighting in
the Bulgar lines, but had finally to withdraw. The
Bulgar barrage, both artillery and trench mortar, every-
where claimed many victims, and the conditions of
fighting in the dark in such rugged ground cannot possi-
bly be conceived by those who do not know the tumbled
surface of Macedonia.*

We had tried the impossible and failed. We had

* Other battalions who plaved a gallant part in these operations
were the 7th Wiltshires, 12th Hants, lOtli Devons, 8th D.C.L.I., 9th
Border Regiment, 9th South Lanes., 2/20th London Regiment, 8th
S. Wales Borderers, 12th Lanes. Fusiliers, 9th K.O.R.L., 7th S.
Wales Borderers, and 11th Welsh Fusiliers.

?31



SALONICA AND AFTER

fought two major battles, against terrible positions, in
which the volume of artillery fire was such as the Bal-
kans had never echoed to before. But it was not a
success— and consequently little or nothing was heard
of it all at home. It was not altogether the fault either
of the Press or the Public that the courage and losses
of our men at Doiran were so little known or talked
about. The enemy knew that, in spite of the ground
we had gained, he had generally repulsed us with heavy
losses, but after all it was not the business of our Com-
mand to let the enemv know exactly how much we
had suffered. In history a nation may be proud of a
reverse, but it can quite easily be a piece of mihtary
stupidity to blazon it forth at the time. But the men,
or the officevs either for that matter, could not thmk on
these lines. They were conscious only of the fact that
they had fought two battles against great odds, in which
two Divisions had suffered over 6,000 casualties, and in
which certain battalions had lost up to seventy per cent,
of their strength. The men who had crossed over the
flaming, crashing Jumeaux Ravine, hung on to Petit
Couronne, and crossed back again, or the men who had
fought their way from Horseshoe up to the Pip Ridge,
or who had won and retained Hill 380 and Mamelon —
these men knew that they had been through an ordeal
as fierce as anything that could be conjured up in the
hell of trench warfare in France, and they naturally
wanted it to be known. It was the fact that Home knew
nothing of the battles of Doiran, and still talked about
there being " no fighting on the Salonica Front," which
accounted in a large measure for the soreness and sense
of injustice of the whole B.S.F. Our men felt that in
order for it to be good to die for one's country one
should first of all possess a country which appreciates
and acknowledges the sacrifice.

232



CHAPTER XVIII.

Victory.

The year 1918, which was to bring victory in the
Balkans as the prelude to final victory elsewhere, threat-
ened for the greater part of its length to be more diffi-
cult than any of those preceding it — at times, indeed,
threatened to bring disaster. The grave turn of affairs
which came on the Western Front in the last days of
March had for everybody in the Balkans a particular
as well as a general significance. As we breathlessly
followed the giant struggle that was proceeding there
we were subject to a twofold anxiety ; an anxiety that
occupied two separate compartments in the mind.
While a decisive German success in the West might
or might not mean the end of all things we knew that
it certainly would mean the end of everything in the
Balkans, and although those at home might easily
forget the lesser in the greater, those in the Balkans
had their own immediate affairs to think about as well
as those of greater majesty that were happening else-
where. A German break-through in the West must
necessarily have meant that sooner or later the Balkan
Armies would be attacked in overwhelming force. In
the West civilization was really at stake ; had fortune
and our own strength failed us it is impossible to con-
jecture all that is dreadful that would have followed.
But one sequel was clear in the Balkans, and that was
that sooner or later our forces there would have been

238



SALONICA AND AFTER

swept away. As the Army has it, we should have been
"scuppered."

As far as the British Army in the Balkans was par-
ticularly concerned we were never in a worse condition,
materially, to meet a great strain than throughout the
summer of 1918. We had sustained heavy losses in
1917, which had not been replaced by reinforcements.
Our four Divisions were all much below strength, and
during the whole of the year the steady drain of the
"Y" scheme went on. A large proportion of the men
left were in an indifferent state of health. And in
June, to meet the great and immediate danger on the
West, twelve of our Infantry battalions were sent there,
reducing our strength at a stroke by one quarter. The
battalions sent to France were the 13th Royal High-
landers (Scottish Horse), 14th King's Liverpool Regi-
ment, 4th K.R.R.C, 7th Wiltshires, 2nd Northumber-
land Fusiliers, 1st K. O. Y.L.I. , 10th Camerons, 3rd
Royal Fusiliers, 13th Manchesters, 10th Royal High-
landers, 12th Lancashire Fusiliers and 9th Gloucesters.

The men from Salonica were received rather coldly
at first. The general impression among their new com-
rades was that they had never seen any fighting.
Officers in their new messes were asked naively if they
had ever been "over the top." Their statements of
battalions which had lost sixty and seventy per cent, of
their strength in attacks in Macedonia in 1917 were re-
ceived with incredulity, which became amazement when
it was realised that such statements were the plain
truth. Why had they never heard these things ? And
the Salonica men soon showed, what indeed must have
been plain to anybody who thought for a moment, that
they were made of the same stuff as the best in France,
and they distinguished themselves signally in the fight-
ing with the 50th and 66th Divisions. Before this heavy

334



VICTORY

demand on our Balkan troops came there had been a
previous call for commanding officers and seconds-in-
command of line battalions for France. This was in
the darkest days following March, and the call was
answered immediately. I saw one of my best B.S.F.
friends off at the dusty Orient Station. He had no il-
lusions as to what he was going out to see, but said,
laughingly, "Anything to get away from this damned
country." In France he gained a bar to his D.S.O. —
but died of the third wound he received on the day he
earned that proud distinction.

Summer found the British forces, then, at their very
lowest ebb, and with the usual hot-weather ailments
playing their usual part. And as if fate had not already
been unkind enough a sudden and severe outbreak of
influenza, which broke out in August, caused great
ravages among our tried and weary troops, who were
as little fitted as could be to resist this terrible malady.
And though the B.S.F. had long previous to this begun
to comb itself out, so as to try and meet its own re-
quirements from within, we see from General Sir George
Milne's despatch of December 1st, 1918, that at the
moment of the final offensive our fighting strength had
fallen below one-half the normal establishment. The
epidemic of influenza spread with "almost explosive
force," to quote a report on the subject. During Sep-
tember and October there were nearly 12,000 admissions
to hospital for influenza and over 1,000 for pneumonia.
The mortality amongst the pneumonia cases was very
high, the prevailing debility following on malaria
largely accounting for this.

In the months of May, June, and July the situation
was in a curiously delicate and uncertain condition. It
was to be expected that with the Germans obtaining
apparently overwhelming successes in the West they

235



SALONICA AND AFTER

would, if possible, stimulate their Bulgarian Allies into
a keener manifestation of the offensive spirit than they
had shown for two years past. The strength, or lack
of it, of the British forces must have been well-known
to the enemy. But coincidently with this critical period
in our own affairs a very distinct spirit of war-weariness
began to manifest itself in the Bulgarian ranks. There
were reports of mutinies, which were later confirmed.
Deserters, who throughout the campaign had always
trickled steadily over to us, began to arrive in greater
numbers. From these and other sources it was learned
that the Bulgarians were contemplating an attack ir
force on the lightest held part of the Balkan line — the
long British front from Doiran to the sea. We had
every reason not to desire any such trial of strength,
because we simply did not possess the forces adequate
to hold up a determined offensive. But all the same
we took every possible step to meet it and completed
the strategic roads which would have facilitated us in
getting back to the Lahana ridge in rear, where we had
strengthened our second line. From there further stra-
tegic roads had long been constructed back towards
the "Birdcage" in case it ever came to the worst — or
the nearly worst.

On our side, however, there was the favourable factor
that the new Greek Armies were rapidly coming into
line. How far this weighed with the Bulgarian Com-
mand it is not easy to say. The Bulgar has the in-
grained habit of despising the Greek — in spite of the
drubbing he received in 1913 — and the events of 1916,
when he was allowed to invade the country, are not
likely to have done much to remove this impression.
From what we know of him, then, it is not likely
that the " Prussian of the Balkans " was very
greatly influenced by the coming in of our new ally.

23R



VICTORY

What did weigh more with the Bulgarian High Com-
mand was the increasing M'ar-weariness among its
troops. The "fed-up" feeling developed rapidly during
the summer. The Bulgars are a mulish, obstinate
people. They did not want to attack at any price,
and the temper of the troops was too dangerous to
try and force them at this stage to play Germany's
game. The German element in the Bulgarian Army
was now much less numerous. A strong leaven of
specialist troops still remained — artillery, trench mor-
tars, machine guns and aviation — mth German officers
in command and German staffs, but nearly all the
German divisions had gone elsewhere. And by the
middle of the summer the Allies had every reason to
come to this definite conclusion — that the Bulgars were
determined not to make any kind of attack on us, but
that they were equally determined to resist to the last
any offensive by us. They were superbly entrenched,
well supplied and munitioned, and had no lack of troops
who could be relied on to fight indefinitely on the de-
fensive, J'y suis, fy reste was their policy, and this
l>eing so, the Allies made up their minds to tr}^ and
shift them. As the Bulgars did not feel inclined to
attack us we decided to attack them. We had now nine
Greek divisions coming into line, and their presence
made a vital difference, whatever the enemy may have
thought about it.

The coming of the Greeks soon produced a change in
the British line. Gradually they took over the Struma
Valley, from the Seres Road eastwards to the sea, and
the 27th Division, which had held this line for over
two-and-a-half years was moved over to a section of
trenches running westwards from the Vardar, just south
of the important town of Guevgheli. The 28th Division
moved a little westwards along the Krusha Balkan, and

237



SALONICA AND AFTER

took up a shorter line nearer Lake Doiran. We thus
had the four British Divisions concentrated — if one may
apply such a word to Divisions which were so much
below strength — on a front of some 35 miles, they being,
from west to east, the 27th, 26th, 22nd, and 28th.
The first Greek troops to come under General Milne's
command were those of the Larissa Division. Later
they were joined by the Seres and Cretan Divisions.
The Seres Division went into line with the 22nd Division
in front of Doiran, and immediately on every notice
board in the trenches and back areas was seen a Greek
legend under the English. The Cretan Division went
into line with the 28th, on the Krusha-Balkan hills,
just to the right of the lake. On the French front
similar re-arrangements were taking place between
French, Greek, and Serbian Divisions.

The enemy, still firm in his policy of ''Here I am;
here I stop," took a great interest in all these proceed-
ings, but was able to find out very little. We kept him
''guessing" all the time. The 27th Division (Maj.-Gen.
G. T. Forestier-Walker) played a great part in this
game. Immediately they went into their new line to
the west of the Vardar they began to take the keenest
interest in the ground that lay before them. Patrols
were out every night, and in two or three weeks the
Division knew every inch of the new territory. Late in
the month of August a series of heavy bombardments
was directed on the enemy lines. Trench raids were
of frequent occurrence, and we were constantly cap-
turing prisoners. Our men showed themselves thor-
oughly superior at the game, and kept the enemy in a
state of nervous tension. A month or more of this sort
of work culminated on the afternoon of September 1st
in an attack against the rocky and strongly-fortified
salient of Alchak Mahale, which, after an intensive bom-

288



VICTORY

bardment, was carried splendidly at the first assault
by the 2nd Gloucesters and the 10th Hampshires, The
enemy launched several determined counter-attacks
against the lost position, all of which were repulsed
with heavy losses. A week later the Greeks in the
Struma Valley advanced their line on a wide front
without any opposition, taking up positions well in
advance of the river. These were the chief operations
on the Anglo-Greek front preliminary to the launching
of the offensive.

The British role was now to await the result of the
Franco-Serbian attack to the west. The idea of trying
for a really decisive blow on the vital and almost in-
accessible but thinly-held line of peaks on the Serbian
front between Vetrenik and Sokol was no new one.
After the abortive offensive of May, 1917, the plan of
this same attack was drawn up by Voivode Mischitch,
the details being worked out at French G.H.Q., chiefly
by Lieut.-Col. Errard. The plan of the Serbian Marshal
was approved by General Sarrail, but was not put into
operation. General Guillaumat's plan was of much
smaller scope, its principal aim being to pin down the
Bulgars and prevent enemy reinforcements of his
front in France. General Franchet d'Esperey adopted
the Mischitch-Errard plan, and carried it out practically
to the letter. Shortly after his arrival in Macedonia
he held a conference, on July 27th, at which were
present the Serbian Crown Prince, Voivode Mischitch
(Serbian Chief of Staff), General Boyovitch (Command-
ing the 1st Army), and Voivode Stepan Stepanovitch
(Commanding the 2nd Army). The Prince was in favour
of an attack on the Serbian front. The final decision to
put the plan into execution was taken on August 8th.

The idea was by a carefully prepared and powerful
surprise attack to break the enemy front at the point

239



SALONICA AND AFTER

where it was held in weakest force, and where a break
would be most decisive, and by pouring troops through
the gap to exploit the rupture to the utmost extent.
Nature had here made the enemy lines on the Serbian
front immensely strong, but his defensive organization
had little depth, and he was weak in artillery. More-
over, a detailed study of the whole of the front showed
that this sector was particularly favourable for attack,
because, once the line was broken, the enemy would
find himself faced with great difficulties in the way of
reinforcement and the power to manoeuvre ; and more-
over, once the Allies had forced the line here they would
occupy dominating positions, and be almost immedi-
ately within measurable striking distance of the
enemy's chief communications. The Allied objective
was to reach the line running from Demir Kapu on the
Vardar westwards to Kavardartzi. By this means it
was hoped to arrive at two main results :

(a) Separate the Bulgar forces m the Vardar Valley
from the Bulgar forces round Monastir.

(b) Cut the principal enemy communications — viz.,
the road and railway running down the Vardar and the
road and railway between Prilep and Gradsko.

Extensive preparations were made for a powerful
attack which would come as a complete surprise. New
roads were made and a plentiful supply of heavy artil-
lery was moved up. The French and Serbs had to un-
dertake a gi'cat amount of work, and most of it had
to be done at night. The enemy had to be kept entirely
unsuspicious. The line held by the Serbs was shortened
by half — from 38 miles to about 19. To add further to
the weight of the attack two French Divisions were in-
corporated in the 2nd Serbian Army ; the 17th (Colonial)
and 122nd Divisions. These two Divisions together witli
the Schumadia (Serbian) Division were to make the

240



VICTORY

actual assault on the heights and break through. The
Yugo-SIav and Timok Divisions of the 2nd Army were
held in reserve to pour through immediately the breach
was made. On the left the 1st Serbian Army (Drina
and Danube Divisions, with the Morava Division and
the Cavalry Division in reserve) was to attack in con-
junction, and further exploit the success. The Serbian
troops were p>erhaps the finest in the world for such an
operation, which meant pushing ahead rapidly in very
mountainous country and being able, if necessary, to
do without food supplies for days together.

Even with the nine Greek Divisions now in line the
Allies had obtained only a very slight numerical superi-
ority, although in material strength we were at last
much ahead of the enemy. The Allies had now 28 In-
fantry Divisions— 8 French, 9 Greek, 6 Serbian, 4
British, and one Italian; the effectives of the latter,
however, being considerably larger than those of the
ordinary Italian Division. The following table gives a
fairly exact idea of the comparative strength of the
Allied and enemy forces :

ON THE WHOLE OF THE MACEDONIAN FRONT.

Allies. Enemy.



Battalions 289


263


Effective rifle strength 177562


172200


Machine guns 2682


2063


Light machine guns (including very




light French gun and British




Lewis guns) 6424


?


Guns, including heavy trench artillery 2069


1850


Cavalry squadrons 47i


26


Aeroplanes (about) 200


80



Our greatest concentration was on the Serbian front,
at the point where it was intended to break through.
On the eve of the attack, following on the rapid trans-

241 R



75


26


36500


11600


756


245


2610


?


580


146


18





81


24



SALONICA AND AFTER

ference there of the two French Divisions, the com-
parative strengths were :

ON THE SERBIAN FRONT ONLY.

Allies. Enemy.

Battalions

Effective rifle strength

Macliine guns

Light do.

(liuns (including trench mortars) .

Cavalry squadrons

Aeroplanes

It will be seen that at the point selected for the first
attack we were at an advantage of about three to one
all round. But against this Allied superiority the Bul-
gars had positions of immense natural strength which,
without the element of surprise, might easily have more
than neutralised our advantage.*

It is interesting to note that at this period the total
strength of the operative Serbian Army was 79,413, and
the grand total of Serbian troops of all kinds 83,767.
After Corfu they had gone up the line again in 1910
little more than 120,000 strong, and in eight months'
time they had lost half these, and of their losses nearly
one-half were killed. The above force of roughly 80,000
men included some 10,000 Yugo-Slav troops who had
come from Russia (some round by Vladivostock and
some via England and France). We see therefore that
of the 650,000 men mobilised by Serbia from first to

* In September, 1918, the entire ration strength of the B.S.F.
Mas round about 175,000, and on the 14th of the month touched
177,865. Our effective Fighting Strength in tliis month (Infantry,
Artillery, Machine-gun Companies, Trench Mortar Batteries, R.R.
Field Companies, Cavalry, Cyclists and Signals) varied between
65,000 and 50,000. Our effective Trench Strength (Infantry — less
rioneer Battalions — M.G. Companies and T.M. Batteries) varied be-
tween .35,000 ;md 25.000, and at the time of our attacks at Doiran
was about 30,000. At one period during the month the number of
sick in hospital reached 20,000.

242



VICTORY

last only about 70,000 troops of all kinds, including all
services, were left to take part in the victory which
gave them back their country. History surely can give
few cases of such unswerving loyalty and tenacity.
/The region in which the attack was to be launched
^as on the line of heights known as the Moglenitza
Range, whose major peaks, Sokol, Dobropolje and
VetTenik run to an average altitude of 5,000 feet. The
enemy, of course, held all the commanding points on
this range, and it was the last point at which he ex-
pected to be attacked. He had been thoroughly de-
ceived by the Allied preparations, and one of his main
concentrations was on the short Vardar-Doiran sector
of the British front, where he had 33 full strength Bat-
talions in line and many more within easy call.

By the end of the second week in September the
Allied preparations were complete. Our Armies, eager


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Online LibraryH. Collinson (Harry Collinson) OwenSalonica and after, the sideshow that ended the war → online text (page 18 of 23)